Robert Pattinson does his best work to date in "Good Time," a raw, roaring new movie from the Safdie brothers. Seeing him tricked out in cheap rhinestone ear studs and a poorly administered platinum dye job, and hearing him mumble baffling non sequiturs like "I think I was a dog in a previous life," we realize that we've never met this actor before — where has he been?
Pattinson plays Constantine "Connie" Nikas, a small-time thief scrounging around the outer boroughs of New York City in search of a score, and he holds our attention with a new, scuzzy charisma. Connie's latest scheme is a bank heist, for which he wants the assistance of his mentally impaired brother, Nick, who spends most of his time in clinical therapy. Hulking and confused, Nick operates at a very low level of cognition, and as we watch Connie awkwardly hustling him out of a therapy session in order to execute the bank job, we can see that nothing to come is likely to go well.
With this movie, underground stars Benny and Josh Safdie are on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough. (Their next film, "Uncut Diamonds," will star Jonah Hill and be exec-produced by Martin Scorsese.) Their style is harsh and exhilarating, recalling gritty New York crime films of the 1970s by Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin, and deploying the wild electronic sounds of score composer Daniel Lopatin (who operates under the nom-de-noise Oneohtrix Point Never) in boldly abrasive ways. Co-director Benny Safdie also takes on the role of Nick, giving a subdued account of a seriously handicapped man that's subtly touching without ever slopping over into heart-nudging sentiment.
The story is a symphony of incompetence. To knock over the bank, the brothers don black-man masks of the O.J. Simpson variety (making for an odd confrontation with the black bank teller to whom they pass their give-us-your-money note). They do manage to get away with a gym bag full of cash — or at least Connie does: Nick winds up in a frightening cell full of violent criminals on Rikers Island.
Connie's focus is now on getting Nick out of jail. To this end, he brings in his dim-bulb girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who's not a lot of help in dealing with the no-nonsense bail bondsman (played by Eric Paykert, an actual bail bondsman) from whom Connie seeks to obtain Nick's $10,000 bail. A number of demented things happen next, and soon the picture is hijacked by a hilarious nut-job jailbird named Ray (Buddy Duress, last seen in the Safdies' 2014 film, "Heaven Knows What"). Also brought into play are a bottle of soda spiked with LSD and a 16-year-old girl (Taliah Webster, another first-time actor) whom Connie has recruited in his quest to bust Nick out of jail. (There's more subtle racial observation here: Webster is black, and later, when Connie feels he has no choice but to betray her, we see both his coward's guilt and her sad lack of surprise.)
The movie has a unique knockabout vibe: We feel crowded and pushed along by the overflow of strange events, and Lopatin's radical score — which sometimes recalls early Pink Floyd — never stops working us over. When Connie says, "I feel like something important is happening, and it's deeply connected to my purpose," we have no idea what he means, but we know how he feels.